For any given case of sick building syndrome (SBS), the trigger can be hard to pinpoint.
In fact, the mystery is part of the very definition of the syndrome. The U.S. Environmental Protection agency defines SBS as “situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.”
But this much is certain: SBS symptoms — headaches, nausea, fatigue, itchy skin, throat irritation, watery eyes, and impaired concentration — are linked with exposure to both chemical and biological contaminants.
Science has not yet identified specific measurements of indoor contaminants that put workers at risk, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it’s likely that different varieties and amounts of pollutants affect individuals in different ways.
For one building occupant, the gases emanating from cleaning products or new hallway carpeting may be the source of nausea; for another, it may be cooking odors emanating from the hospital kitchen. And what is annoying to one person may be debilitating to another.
Nonetheless, research has identified the most common SBS sources, and anyone responsible for the wellbeing of a facility’s occupants should be aware of them.
First, let’s talk chemicals. Thanks to workplace smoking bans and lower smoking rates, tobacco toxins have become less of a hazard to indoor air quality. However, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) remain a huge threat in the workplace and school environments.
VOCs are toxic gases emitted by the products we walk on, sit on, wear, and use to do our jobs every single day. In other words, carpets, desks, shelving, upholstery, adhesives, copy machines, and personal products such as shampoos, perfumes, lotions, and hand sanitizers. Products needn’t even be scented, or emit obvious odors, to trigger symptoms. Deodorants, cosmetics, and cleaning supplies designated as “unscented” may actually contain chemicals used cover up odors emitted by other ingredients.
What these products have in common: they all contain compounds refined from petroleum, and they’re everywhere.
In fact, indoor concentrations of VOCs are often 10 times higher indoors than outdoors. In urban areas, new research shows, the compounds contribute just as much to air pollution as vehicles.
But VOCs are not the only source of toxins wafting around “sick” buildings. Bacteria, viruses, mold, dust mites, insect droppings, and pollen are among the biological contaminants that can trigger the syndrome.
What’s more, not all the triggers of SBS originate from within the building. About 11 percent of the contaminants — such as vehicle exhaust, construction materials, and tobacco smoke — waft in from the outdoors via vents and windows.
Just as some people are more susceptible to SBS due to their genetic makeup and health status, some buildings are more susceptible due to their construction.
Sick building syndrome dates back to changes in building construction that followed the 1973 oil embargo against the United States. To save on fuel for heating and air conditioning, buildings lowered ventilation standards by two-thirds, requiring a paltry 5 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outside air per occupant. In other words, buildings became practically air tight.
These days, U.S. building codes have improved considerably, typically requiring a ventilation rate of 20 cfm per person. However, many older buildings have not been upgraded, and standards vary greatly around the globe. In dense urban areas with limited land for high-rise construction, buildings often lack adequate ventilation.
Besides, workers can experience sick building symptoms even at 20 cfm. According to the Environmental Advisory Council, ventilation rates would have to exceed 53 cfm per person to make SBS vanish.
But ventilation alone can’t clear up the problem — not when a building is cleaned with chemicals that emit VOCs, lined with toxic carpeting, contaminated by mold within the HVAC system, or occupied by staff who wear VOC-emitting perfumes.
A building’s interior design can also contribute to SBS. For example, the arrangement of cubicles and offices can compromise indoor air flow and exacerbate the itchy eyes, respiratory problems, nausea and other symptoms triggered by biological and chemical pollutants.
In short, indoor environments are highly complex, and occupants are exposed to a mix of chemical and biological contaminants from a vast array of sources.
However, just because the cause of SBS is complex does not mean the solution is equally complex. In fact, technology has progressed to the point where a single remedy — air purification — can, quite effectively, rid a room of pollutants as different as nausea-inducing gases and allergy-inducing pollen.